Timothy Stokes

Timothy B Stokes Ph.D.

What Freud Didn't Know

Neurobiology doesn’t reduce human experience into mechanistic meaninglessness.

Why neurobiology can't define us.

Posted Jun 20, 2009

Over the last several years I have been touting very practical benefits that result from insights into the brain science that underlies psychological change mechanisms. So I am especially sensitive to those who suggest that if we associate ourselves too closely with our brains we reduce the richness of the human mind into mechanistic interactions of neurons. These comments imply that embracing neurobiology serves to suck the juiciness out of human experience and mire us in an arid desert of meaninglessness.

In contrast, I have met a number of people, proud nihilists (or "realists" as they might prefer to call themselves), who seem to secretly delight in suggesting that all of human experience can be reduced into the afore-mentioned mechanistic interaction of neurons. When pressed, this latter group will sometimes imply that the value we assign to our experiences is a vain attempt to avoid the empty reality of their material underpinnings.

The one group seems to embrace the same assumption that the other group implicitly seems to believe but wants to avoid: the truest reality of our minds resides in the chemistry of our brains. Both of these groups seem to be dealing in that same philosophical coin. I believe that there is a problem with the coin itself. Discoveries that elucidate the mechanics that underlie our experience do not truly imply that our experience is "nothing more than electrochemical interactions".

I have no doubt that the neurobiological mechanics of the brain are critical to being able to experience life, but those two things-the brain and the experience that manifests thru it-exist in different realms. I went to a concert the other night and it struck me that although the musician who has gone to the trouble to learn more about how her instrument produces sound might well develop insights that improve her musicianship, no degree of insight into the physics of an instrument will equate with the experience of listening to the music that it produces. Even the most exhaustive analysis of sound waves won't result in the experience of actually listening to the music. Similarly, even the most thorough understanding of the chemistry of an apple and a complete understanding of the biology of taste will never capture the experience of eating an apple. That which produces an experience shouldn't be confused with the experience itself. Neurobiology describes the functions that underlie our experiences but it can't depict those experiences any more than chemistry can depict the taste of an apple, or physics can depict the experience of music. Conscious experience is a mysterious phenomenon that inhabits a different plane than the neurobiology that makes it possible.

Similarly, the meaning that we derive from life is also not lessened by our understanding of the mechanisms that underlie our insights. My computer offers an analogy for this. Today on my computer I have seen an awesome and intimidating picture of a tornado close at hand. An email note from a friend has touched me. Someone sent me a cartoon that left me laughing out loud, and my bank statement caused me some worry. Clearly these experiences manifested by my computer were significant to me. Even if my scant knowledge of computer technology were to expand to encompass complete insight into the workings of my computer's software and hardware, this understanding could not serve to convey the meaning of what my computer has made available to me. Analogously, my brain is the material that underlies my life experience. It allows me to perceive and conceive many things that are meaningful to me. Although understanding more about how this organ works can help me modify it and thereby enhance what it affords me, such insight cannot account for the value that I derive from it.

A car arrives at my house. It is impressive in its abilities. It can travel at speeds greater than 70 miles per hour while keeping its occupants comfortable and safe on a rainy cold highway. The first to emerge from the car is a dog, who runs to me cradling a ball in her mouth, her wagging tail conveys her certainty that I won't be able to resist throwing the ball and delighting us both. Next one of my brothers emerges, bearing a smile of acknowledgement that lets me know he is happy to see me, and I am reminded that he loves me, foibles and all. Soon his kids run up to me and hug their uncle in a warm ritual of mutual recognition. His wife walks over, making a joke that gets me laughing-a couple of sentences that well depict the trials and tribulations of the last hour in the car.

The car remains where it was parked. Without it these encounters would not have been possible. Yet the car stands apart from the contents it just harbored. It is after all just a car. My brain is the vehicle that manifests the cornucopia of my life experiences. However, it does not equate with that colorful array of events and meaning that it makes possible. It is after all just a brain.